Cultural & Historical Impact of Rose Oils
In addition to Cleopatra and the ancient Egyptians, roses have been revered by cultures all over the world. Below is more information about the ways in which just a few different cultures have traditionally enjoyed roses, rose essential oil, rose water and other rose products.
In ancient Greek and Roman culture, the rose held a divine and highly admired position. The rose represented both beauty and love and was sacred to Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love, and to her Roman equivalent, Venus. In later years especially, the rose also came to represent the Roman Empire’s penchant for luxury and excess, as the Romans loved to fill their cities with ornate rose gardens and cover their banquet tables with the flower’s silky petals (Brown, source).
In addition to the cultivation of the rose, ancient Greeks and Romans also devised and valued some of the first rose products. Many believe the existence of rose water can be traced back to 1200 BC, to the ancient Mycenaean city of Pilos in Greece where it was traded commercially (Scarman, source, 2014). The Greek physician Dioscorides (A.D. 40-90) often used a rose pomade that he made from steeping rose petals in a fatty oil. He also wrote about the rose’s cooling and astringent qualities, adding that the liquor of roses cooked in wine was useful for treating headaches and ailments of the eyes, ears, gums, and womb. He sprinkled dried, powdered rose petals on food for patients who experienced pain in their gums. Similarly, the Roman naturalist and historian Pliny the Elder (A.D. 23-79) also described rose as an astringent, writing that the petals, flowers, and heads were used in medicine. Greek and Roman citizens also inhaled the fragrance of the rose to clear the mind, much like current consumers still do in today’s aromatherapy practices. (European Medicines Agency [EMA], source, 2013).
In both the Greek and Roman empires, rose petals were added to olive oil to create a rose perfume. Roses were one of the most beloved flowers for use in cosmetics, and women applied rose petals, rose water, or aromatic rose extracts in cosmetics as beauty masks, eyeshadow, and blush (Ferlei-Brown, source, 2014). Pliny the Elder wrote in his Naturalis Historia that charred rose petals were excellent for darkening the eyebrows, and that dried, powdered rose petals should be sprinkled about the body as a deodorant (O’Brien, source, 2014).
Rosa rugosa, known as the Chinese rose, or mei gui hua in China, was traditionally used in Chinese medicine and thought to influence the liver and the spleen. According to traditional Chinese medicine, rose promotes the movement of Qi (life force, or natural energy) in the body and relieves liver-stomach disharmony associated with pain and distention, as well as gas and poor appetite. Rose oil also harmonizes and quickens the blood and helps with stasis in the body, especially stasis associated with irregular menses, breast tenderness (PMS), and menstrual pain, as well as stasis from physical and emotional trauma (Yin Yang House, source, 2014).
The rose and its essential oil have a sacred place within traditional Persian (present day Iranian) culture. According to an old Persian saying, “Rose is the only thing you can take with you when you die, because it’s not of this world.” Starting as early as 810 B.C., the province of Faristan in Persia was required to give an annual tribute of 30,000 bottles of rose water to the Caliph (head of state) in Baghdad. During this period, Faristan was the center of global rose water production, exporting to China and all over the Islamic world. Later on, the cultivation of roses for the production of rose water was a thriving industry in the city of Shiraz, often known as the City of Gardens, in the ancient Persian Empire. (Scarman, source, 2014).
The discovery of rose essential oil and perfume has been attributed to Persian princess Nour-Djihan Beygum, an account found in History of the Great Moguls by Mohammad Achem. Although this is most likely not the origin of rose essential oil’s use in perfume, the tale still illustrates the beauty and importance of the rose in Persian culture. In 1582, Nour-Djihan, wife of Emperor Dhihanguyr, threw a great feast in honor of her husband. Instead of just presenting him with the traditional gift of rose water common to this time period, she commanded artificial canals to be constructed in her garden, and she filled these canals with roses to create the alluring scent of rose water. Another account asserts that Emperor Djihanguyr ordered the fountains and canals in the royal gardens to be filled with rose water to celebrate his wedding to Nour-Djihan. While walking through the gardens with her husband, the princess noticed that an oily residue had collected on the surface of the water. She ran her fingers through the scented water and was delighted to find that a fragrant oil clung to her hands. The Emperor began to produce and bottle this rose oil in tribute to his wife. In all versions of the story, it is noted that the sun had extracted the pure essence of rose. This rose oil was called Dhihanguyr's Essence, and then later Aettr-Gyl (“fat of the flower”) from which rose attar (rose otto) is derived (Summers, source, 2014).
Dozens of varieties of roses grow wild in North America, and many introduced by early European settlers, including Rosa rugosa and Rosa canina (Cole, source, 2012). Using native species as well as introduced species when available, Native American tribes relied on the rose’s leaves, petals, hips, and roots for a variety of conditions, including colds, fevers, diarrhea, influenza, and stomach troubles.
Many tribes turned to different parts of the rose bush when treating ailments of the eyes. The Omahas steeped the hips or roots to make a wash in order to treat eye inflammations. In the Great Lakes region, the Chippewas made a tea from the wild rose and used the berries for food and for diseases of the eye as well. The inner bark of the rose bush’s roots were used to treat cataracts. The Flathead and Cheyenne tribes treated snow blindness with an eyewash made by boiling the petals, stem bark, or root bark. The Cheyenne also boiled the inner bark to make a tea for treating diarrhea and stomach trouble (Cloverleaf Farm, source, 2014).
Members of the Crow tribes boiled the crushed rose bush roots and used them in hot compresses to reduce swellings. They also sniffed the vapor of this boiled concoction to stop bleedings from the nose or mouth. Members of Arapaho tribes used the seeds to produce a drawing effect for muscular pain (Cloverleaf Farm, source, 2014).